The Sion crossover electric vehicle claims it can add 70 miles a week from the solar panels embedded all over the car.
- Sono Motors—a Munich, Germany-based startup—is on tour in the US this month to show off its Sion electric car, a car sporting an electric powertrain and a body covered in solar panels.
- The company makes the optimistic claim that the solar panels will add up to 70 miles per week of range.
- Sono says the Sion’s 54-kilowatt-hour battery, made by BYD, will deliver a 190-mile range, though on what test cycle that is quoted is unclear.
If you’re skeptical about “solar cars,” well, you’ve had good reasons to be. Just as “air cars” (running on compressed air) aren’t really feasible for more than minuscule range, it’s pretty difficult to get enough panels onto a car to move it any significant distance. Bypassing the battery and using only solar is especially problematic. But, of course, automakers—Toyota, Hyundai, and Fisker are just three—can and do use solar panels for smaller onboard tasks, such as pre-heating or cooling the cabin.
Germany’s Sono Motors is trying to up the ante with its solar-aided, panel-covered Sion battery car, which it’s taking on a US tour this month. Actor/comedian Whoopi Goldberg showed up in Brooklyn, but Autoweek caught up with the team in Boston. With the Sion, solar is an add-on to a conventional EV.
The initial aim, says CEO Laurin Hahn—who started by electrifying and solar-powering a Renault Twingo with a partner when he was still in high school—is to produce an affordable electric car for Europe that can combat climate change. The company’s Sion crossover-type vehicle will sell for $25,000 when it goes on sale in 24 European countries in the second half of 2023. It’s certainly no race car with 168 horsepower moving 3700 pounds, but the Sion is said to reach 87 miles per hour.
The Sion is all black, but the embedded solar panels give it a purplish sheen.
Munich’s Sono was formed in 2016, and much of its time since then has been spent trying to develop lightweight solar panels that could be mounted on the Sion’s aluminum structure—on the hood, trunk and the vehicle’s side panels—without breaking.
The solution was panels embedded into honeycombed injection-molded polymer plastic. The company has 30 patents in the area, and is equally invested in selling its solar applications for use on transit buses, trucks, and other mobile platforms with available space. It says more than 20 companies are pilot testing the solar tech, including a branch of Mitsubishi Europe, Munich’s municipal bus fleet, MAN Truck and Bus, CHEREAU, and Kögel. “We want to lower dependence on charging,” Hahn said.
The company’s Sion will sell for $25,000 when it goes on sale Europe in 2023.
Sono’s other innovation is a proprietary MCU (Maximum Power Point Tracking Central Unit) that converts the low voltage from the panels into higher voltage the car can use. The Sion has 456 integrated solar half-cells, with a peak output of 1.2 kilowatts.
Under ideal conditions, Hahn said, a Sion owner in New York could add 4700 solar miles a year, and 6000 miles in sunny Los Angeles. With a 54-kilowatt-hour battery made by BYD, the Sion has 190-mile range, but “in typical weather conditions” the company thinks 70 miles a week or more could be added via the solar. Of course, these figures could well turn out to be optimistic, as range estimates often are. The car also has 11-kilowatt bi-directional charging on board as standard.
Nobody is going to buy a Sion because it’s gorgeous. The vehicle is boxy, with a mottled skin that looks a bit like a car that has been 3D-printed—until, up close, the mottling reveals itself as the embedded panels. The interior is functional, with eight- and 10-inch screens that reveal such data as the amount of solar, in watts, being collected. The eye is drawn to a row of illuminated green moss—yes, moss—that is mounted below the dash vents. It’s not really functional, but it looks cool.
Whoopi Goldberg takes the wheel of the Sion.
I was unable to drive the car in Boston, but I did sit in it. The cabin is relatively Spartan (no rear cupholders) but roomy, with good head and leg space in both rows. The trunk is fairly large, and there is a compartment under the floor for additional storage. Storage is quoted at 29.5 cubic feet without folding the second row, and 42.3 with it down.
What about crashes? Surely, the solar-covered panels can’t be repaired using standard body shop methods. Christian Scheckenbach, Sono’s public relations head, told Autoweek that the car’s polymer structure is flexible and might not sustain damage in minor shopping cart bumps. In a medium collision, he said, the panels should still work, but “the visual impression of the flexible polymer” would be affected, i.e., you’d see a dent. Big collisions, well, they can replace the outer polymer layer, or the whole panel.
The concept of an affordable “solar car” has attracted European interest. Sono says it has 20,000 private reservations with a $2,000 average down payment, and 22,000 pre-orders from fleet operators, including 12,600 from car subscription service FINN.
Thomas Hausch, Sono’s chief operating officer and a veteran of Fiat and Daimler, said the key to making the Sion affordable is keeping it simple and one-size-fits-all. “There’s only one version,” he said. There are no options, aside from some kind of trailer attachment. Hahn quotes Henry Ford’s famous dictum that you could get the Model T in any color you wanted, as long as it was black. All Sions are, indeed, black (though they look purple in certain lights).
Hausch said the car will be built at Finland’s Valmet Automotive, which hosts small manufacturing operations—including at one time the Fisker Karma and Norway’s Think electric. The production capacity for Sions there is 43,000 cars per year.
The cabin is functional, spare, but roomy…
…with good head and leg space in both rows.
Sono has 400 employees currently, 250 of them engineers and almost all based in Munich. It has ambitious plans for its unique niche, but it’s not the only entry there. There’s also the Lightyear One out of Holland, with its own solar technology, four in-wheel motors, and a claim of up to 600 miles between “between plug-charging moments.” But affordability isn’t the company’s principal aim—the price is approximately $265,000.
Aptera, which makes a forthcoming and similarly priced ($25,900) three-wheeled electric car, claims it solar technology “can give you up to about 40 miles per day of free driving powered by the sun.”
Sam Abuelsamid, a principal research analyst leading Guidehouse Insights’ E-Mobility solution, is skeptical of some of the more exaggerated claims. “Solar has some limited utility,” he told Autoweek. “The fundamental problem is that the panels will only be at their peak generating capacity when the sun’s rays are hitting them at a 90-degree angle of incidence. And cars, by their nature, are moving, which means the panels aren’t usually at an optimal angle. That said, automakers like Sono definitely can take advantage of onboard solar to run auxiliary systems and take the load off the battery. Whether they can provide an extra 70 miles a week is debatable.”